Image Makeover

Interview by Steven Gertz

On September 5, 2013, Qatar Postdoctoral Fellow Adel Iskandar delivered a lecture at CCAS about his research on media in the Arab world, and particularly about Radio Sawa, an American-funded station popular in certain Arab countries. Following that presentation, CCAS interviewed Dr. Iskandar about his research.

Tell us a bit about your educational background and how you became interested in the Arab world.

When I began my studies in the medical sciences at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, I became very involved in campus life. During my senior year, I developed a particular fascination with media. I joined the editorial team of the student newspaper, worked on a documentary about sustainable tourism to Egypt, and co-hosted on community radio an award-winning 12-hour continuous specialty program called “Through Arab Eyes.” It was at that time that I realized I wanted to continue my study of media, and I went on to do a master’s at Purdue University in mass communication. From there, I went to the University of Kentucky to pursue a PhD in international and intercultural communications with Douglas A. Boyd, a pioneer in the area of Arab media research. It was during that time that Al-Jazeera gained popularity as a broadcaster in the region, and what began as an inquisitive paper in class led to Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism, which I co-authored with Mohammed El-Nawawy in 2003.

Let’s talk about your work here at CCAS. During this fellowship, what are your primary research goals for your time here?

I am primarily working to turn my dissertation into a book, in which I analyze American government broadcasting to the Arab world, how American international broadcast policy has developed since the events of September 11, 2001, and how the US is reimagining itself in relation to the global community. I would also like to continue my study of online dissident culture and digital activism, from the days of Facebook-led protests in Egypt to the various forms of user-generated activism today. I’m especially interested in “memes,” which are essentially online viral messages or images that speak to contemporary topics and encourage public participation and engagement.

Morsy as Baby
Memes that succeed in the Middle East blend humor and critique; if they do not offer both, they typically do not circulate widely. Many of these memes use stills or videos from famous movies or theatrical plays to ridicule politicians. Others ridicule politicians by placing them in compromising situations. Under President Morsi, for example, activists in Egypt produced thousands of memes with anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiments. One such meme (as shown to the right) imagines the former president Mohammed Morsi as a baby in a diaper being carried by the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, with the caption “You’ve grown up and become a president, you little stinker.” Today critics of the military-backed interim government, including Islamists, are also producing similar memes lambasting and lampooning Minister of Defense General Abdelfattah El-Sisi.

In your presentation at CCAS, you said that American media is actively exporting the concept of “cultural chimera” to the Arab world and the world at large. What do you mean by this?

The chimera in Greek mythology is a fire-breathing animal that combines body parts from many different animals. What I call “cultural chimera” is the American media’s effort to appear diverse and inclusive in order to remain competitive globally. The Arab world (and really much of the world) has come to perceive the US through its popular culture delivered via mass media; understanding this dynamic, media producers have tried to “hybridize” American culture by producing films that depict a nation composed of multiple cultures, that is fundamentally self-critical, and which is a microcosm of the world. Whereas in the past, the media was focused on selling “American culture” and defending “American values,” today’s productions have become increasingly critical of both. Syriana (2005), Rendition (2007), and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) are all examples of American films that reflect this growing sensitivity to other cultures and Arabs in particular. Film producers are also becoming increasingly reliant on a global market, and movies that appeal to a more diverse and international audience are likely to be more profitable.

How does American foreign policy play into all this? Has the US government tried to intervene or control this media, particularly as it is produced for a world market?

Let me answer that question with an example. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the popular comedy troupe “The Axis of Evil” ridiculed the contradictions of a highly securitized American state, thereby critiquing American foreign policy and the government’s treatment of Arab minorities. However, some members of this troupe joined a State Department-sponsored comedy tour of Middle East, thereby demonstrating the degree of tolerance and self-criticism of the US government. In other words, what began as a criticism of the American government became a tool of the government to display a positive image of the US in the Middle East. Particularly under the Obama administration, the US government has increasingly tried to shed the image of a stubborn, aggressive, and adversarial nation that expresses its ambitions and pursues its interests militarily, and has instead tried to portray itself as a diverse, conciliatory, and self-admonishing nation. American popular culture, arguably the country’s most successful export, becomes a vital component in this outreach.

A key point in your presentation is that networks like Radio Sawa, a news station that broadcasts to the Arab world and which is funded by the US Congress, say that they deliver objective journalism, when in fact they have an ideological agenda as an arm of the American government’s effort to improve Arab public approval of the United States. How aware do you think Arabs are of this conflict in interests?

Many Arabs are not initially aware of this contradiction in Radio Sawa’s mission, but research shows that if they listen long enough, they quickly understand that its news and analysis are coming from the US government. During the war in Iraq, most news coverage coming from Radio Sawa tried to depict the American military as a stabilizing influence that brought democracy to the country, and it claimed that the majority of Iraqis supported President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Likewise, newscasters tried to present a positive image of Israel to its listeners, claiming that Israel acted in the best interests of Palestinians. But keep in mind that Radio Sawa is just one station in what is a fairly crowded media environment. The Arab world is one of the most saturated radio and television markets in the world. To uncover Radio Sawa’s bias, all listeners have to do is tune in to a local station that has a very different view of the US’s invasion of Iraq or Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

What impact, then, has Radio Sawa had on Arabs who listen to it?

Research shows that most people listen to the station primarily for its music, much of which comes from the Arab world. (Listeners often tune out the news in the same way that Americans often try to ignore commercials.) As do other radio stations, Radio Sawa acts as a surrogate deejay for Arab youth in the comfort of their homes, a kind of Pandora that is tailored to their likes. The station typically plays the top 40 commercial hits, and it crams in as many as it can in an hour. The result is that songs are taken out of their context, and that the station ends up juxtaposing different musical genres back to back. Nevertheless, the appeal of hybrid musical genres is growing as popular artists also produce such works. One example is a collaboration between Egyptian singer Hakim and Puerto Rican artist Olga Tañon, who performed a song in both Arabic and Spanish called “Ah Ya Albi.” While the appeal of such music cannot be credited to Radio Sawa or even said to have begun after the station’s launch, the network has benefitted from its growing popularity.

You mentioned that Radio Sawa has remained competitive (or in the top five) in three countries especially (Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait), but that it has declined in countries like Egypt and Iraq. What do you think accounts for this? Might the fact that Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait are all constitutional monarchies have any relation to this?

I think it has more to do with those countries’ foreign policies than it does with their makeup. All three countries (Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait) are staunch allies of the US, so the governments haven’t taken any measures to curb access to Radio Sawa. The Egyptian government, however, even when Mubarak was a strong ally of the US, prevented it from accessing the Egyptian market by denying the station FM carriage, thereby limiting its audience. That said, anti-American sentiment is growing in Kuwait and Jordan.

It is a tricky business trying to gauge what audiences listen to and then attributing political reason to it. But one thing worth mentioning is that pop culture trumps news and political messaging in many markets in the region. Regardless of whether Radio Sawa produces unbiased pieces or not, they will continue to attract viewers with the music they play. This is why it still exists, despite criticism from within and without the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and irrespective of the contradictions and controversy.